When I was a university student, I came across a graphic which put the major denominations on a continuum from Roman Catholics and Anglicans on the one side, to the Evangelical denominations on the other. I’m not exactly sure of the exact wording, but my recollection is that the continuum compared the degree a denomination was open to the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in and through the physical elements of a church service (what Owen Meany would call “hocus pocus”). The mainline churches, like the Christian Reformed Church to which I have belonged since birth, was right in the middle.
At the time, I didn’t understand how exactly the church of my youth was at all open to the Holy Spirit in the physical elements of liturgy. It was nothing like the Greek Orthodox, Anglican and Roman Catholic worship services I had attended over the years. These services were full of mysterious objects and activities that I don’t understand or appreciate, but I definitely got the sense that the physical elements were infused with a mystery, and power.
I once went to a Greek Orthodox on a Sunday morning, but hadn’t bothered checking when the service began, so I got there about an hour and a half too early. Although the pews were completely empty, there was a lot of activity behind the heavily iconic screen in the middle of the sanctuary. The priests were chanting and praying and doing things with the Bible and candles and incense and I don’t know what else. What struck me was the lack of an audience. Adorned in their priestly vestments, they were going through all sorts of complex ritual and there was no one there to see it. Or was there? It’s interesting that as much as we talk about God being the centre of worship in our protestant churches, our rituals suggest otherwise. In the churches I’m familiar with, the worship starts when the congregants show up and not before.
Besides meaningful interactions with God and preparing themselves for their role in the service, I think the Greek Orthodox priests were also engaged in activities that prepared the physical space for worship. It makes some sense that you can’t just have people walk into a place and start worshiping the Almighty, Triune, Creator God. I was thinking about the space of worship in the church of my youth. Back then it was called a sanctuary. I know that the worship space in many churches today is called an auditorium. Labels make a lot of difference. A sanctuary is a sacred or holy place. An auditorium is a place where you hear things. Notice how the first suggests the presence of the holy and the spiritual in the physical space, where the second places an emphasis on human activity; humans making noises and hearing them.
I’m glad my new church doesn’t call the space we gather for corporate worship as “the auditorium.” But what about the sense of holiness for the space in which we worship? I wonder if we have gone too far in the last 500 years.